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Tag: preliminary hearing

State v. Fowers – 2023 UT App 128 – violation of protective order

State v. Fowers – 2023 UT App 128

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellant,

v.

THOMAS FOWERS,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220073-CA

Filed October 26, 2023

Fourth District Court, Provo Department

The Honorable Robert A. Lund

No. 201402484

Sean D. Reyes and Jeffrey D. Mann, Attorneys for

Appellant, assisted by law student Rebecca Barker[1]

Douglas J. Thompson, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE JOHN D. LUTHY authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

LUTHY, Judge:

¶1        Thomas Fowers’s ex-wife (Ex-Wife) is married to his adopted brother (Brother). A court issued a protective order directing Fowers not to “contact . . . or communicate in any way with [Ex-Wife], either directly or indirectly,” and not to “threaten to commit any form of violence against” her. Early one morning, Fowers called Brother’s phone three times in two minutes from an unrecognized number. The first two times, no one answered. The third time, Ex-Wife answered, and Fowers said, “You and that f***ing whore have it coming.”

¶2        Fowers was charged with violating the protective order. The district court declined to bind Fowers over and dismissed the charge, determining that there was “no evidence in the record to establish that Mr. Fowers . . . intentionally communicat[ed] either directly or indirectly to [Ex-Wife]” since “the statement itself clearly [was] directed at [Brother]” and Fowers did not tell Brother “to direct the comment to [Ex-Wife].” The State appeals, and we reverse.

BACKGROUND

¶3        Ex-Wife obtained a protective order against Fowers in August 2017. The order included a “No Contact Order” stating, “Do not contact, phone, mail, e-mail, or communicate in any way with [Ex-Wife], either directly or indirectly.” It also included a “Personal Conduct Order” stating, “Do not commit, try to commit or threaten to commit any form of violence against [Ex-Wife] . . . . This includes stalking, harassing, threatening, physically hurting, or causing any other form of abuse.”

¶4        One morning in July 2020, Brother’s phone received three calls between 4:57 a.m. and 4:58 a.m. from an unrecognized number. At the time of the first call, Ex-Wife and Brother “were, of course, sleeping.” As they awoke, they thought that maybe someone was calling for help related to a wedding they were to attend that day. When Ex-Wife answered the third call, she recognized Fowers’s voice saying, “You and that f***ing whore have it coming.”

¶5        Ex-Wife reported the calls to authorities, and Fowers was charged with one third-degree felony count of violation of a protective order with a domestic violence enhancement.

¶6        The district court held a preliminary hearing on the charge. The State presented evidence that Fowers had been served with the protective order. In addition to Ex-Wife, who testified about the phone calls, the deputy who received Ex-Wife’s report testified that he had checked the number from which the calls had been made against local records and found that the number was attached to Fowers. The deputy also said that he called the number and that, when he asked to speak to Fowers, the person who answered identified himself as Fowers. Additionally, the court accepted into evidence records of three prior convictions of Fowers’s for violating this protective order and a previous protective order because those convictions were “relevant to establish under evidence [r]ule 404 both knowledge by the defendant and intention.”

¶7        After the State presented its case, the court found “that the [S]tate ha[d] not met its burden.” The court explained:

[A]lthough the direct and circumstantial evidence establishes that Mr. Fowers made the call, the number that he called was his adoptive brother’s number, not the alleged victim’s number. . . .

[And] the statement itself clearly is directed at [Brother], not at [Ex-Wife]. He say[s] “you and that f’ing whore,” meaning that he’s directing his comment toward [Brother] and not [Ex-Wife] . . . . [W]hat is glaringly missing from the record here is any statement by Mr. Fowers to [Brother] to direct the comment to the alleged victim. Therefore, there is no evidence in the record to establish that Mr. Fowers intentionally violated this order by intentionally communicating either directly or indirectly to [Ex-Wife].

Based on those findings, I find that the [S]tate has not—even drawing inferences in the light most favorable to the [S]tate— . . . establish[ed] sufficient evidence[,] and I decline to bind the charge over.

The court dismissed the charge with prejudice, and the State now appeals.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶8        The State contends that it presented evidence establishing probable cause that Fowers violated the protective order and that the district court therefore erred by not binding Fowers over. In essence, the State argues that the court applied the wrong legal standard by not viewing the evidence and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from it in favor of the prosecution. A district court’s “decision to bind over a criminal defendant for trial presents a mixed question of law and fact and requires the application of the appropriate bindover standard to the underlying factual findings. As a result, in reviewing a bindover decision, an appellate court should afford the decision limited deference.” In re I.R.C., 2010 UT 41, ¶ 12, 232 P.3d 1040 (cleaned up). “Applying the wrong legal standard . . . will always exceed whatever limited discretion the [court] has in the bindover decision.” State v. Ramirez, 2012 UT 59, ¶ 7, 289 P.3d 444.

ANALYSIS

¶9        Our supreme court has explained that the evidentiary threshold for bindover is a low bar:

Although the guarantee of a preliminary hearing is fundamental, the evidentiary threshold at such hearing is relatively low. As we have emphasized, a showing of “probable cause” entails only the presentation of evidence sufficient to support a reasonable belief that the defendant committed the charged crime. . . . To justify binding a defendant over for trial, the prosecution need not present evidence capable of supporting a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Nor is the prosecution required to eliminate alternative inferences that could be drawn from the evidence in favor of the defense. All that is required is reasonably believable evidence—as opposed to speculation—sufficient to sustain each element of the crime(s) in question.

State v. Ramirez, 2012 UT 59, ¶ 9, 289 P.3d 444 (cleaned up). Here, the State needed to present “evidence sufficient to support a reasonable belief” that Fowers violated the protective order, id. (cleaned up), and the court was required to “view all evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution and . . . draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the prosecution,” State v. Clark, 2001 UT 9, ¶ 10, 20 P.3d 300 (cleaned up).

¶10 A person commits the crime of violation of a protective order if the person “(a) is the respondent or defendant subject to a protective order . . . and (b) intentionally or knowingly violates that order after having been properly served” with it. Utah Code § 76-5-108(2). A person acts intentionally “when it is his conscious objective or desire to engage in the conduct.” Id. § 76-2-103(1). And a person acts knowingly “when he is aware of the nature of his conduct or the existing circumstances.” Id. § 76-2-103(2).

¶11 There is no dispute that Fowers was subject to the protective order at issue, and the State showed that Fowers was served with that protective order. Thus, the only issue before us is whether the State offered evidence supporting a reasonable belief that Fowers intentionally or knowingly violated the protective order. On this point, the State first argues that it put on evidence sufficient to establish probable cause that Fowers violated the No Contact Order portion of the protective order by “intentionally or knowingly contact[ing] Ex-Wife at least indirectly” because “[i]t was reasonable to infer that Fowers knew or intended that his contact and [message] . . . would be relayed to Ex-Wife.” The State then argues that Fowers’s statement “You and that f***ing whore have it coming” can also be reasonably interpreted as a threat of violence in violation of the Personal Conduct Order portion of the protective order. We agree with each of the State’s arguments.[2]

¶12      The State put on evidence establishing probable cause that Fowers intentionally or knowingly contacted Ex-Wife at least indirectly. In State v. Fouse, 2014 UT App 29, 319 P.3d 778, cert. denied, 329 P.3d 36 (Utah 2014), this court affirmed a conviction for violation of a protective order where the defendant mailed envelopes to the victim’s sisters rather than to the victim, his estranged wife. Id. ¶¶ 4–7, 43. The victim was living with one of the sisters, and the other sister lived in the apartment next door. Id. ¶ 3. While some of the letters in the envelopes were addressed to the victim, others contained statements such as, “Please hold onto this. . . . [E]ven though I can’t send nor talk to my wife or kids[,] . . . writing sure does help.” Id. ¶ 4. Nonetheless, we reasoned that a factfinder “could readily infer that communication directed to or dealing with one’s ex-spouse, and sent to the ex-spouse’s siblings, will routinely and predictably be conveyed by the siblings to their family member.” Id. ¶ 40. And we noted, “Such an inference is particularly sound in this case, given the jury’s awareness that [the victim] and her sisters were close—in both senses of that term.” Id.

¶13 The same reasoning applies here. A factfinder could readily infer that calls Fowers placed to Brother or statements Fowers made to him would “routinely and predictably be conveyed” to Ex-Wife, Brother’s spouse, especially where a factfinder could reasonably infer that Brother and Ex-Wife were “close” “in both senses of that term.” Id. Indeed, a factfinder could infer that Fowers’s decision to call Brother just before 5:00 a.m.— a time when spouses could reasonably be assumed to be together—manifested his intent to catch Brother and Ex-Wife together. Therefore, we have no trouble concluding that the State’s evidence was sufficient to support a reasonable belief that Fowers, by calling Brother’s phone when he did, intentionally or knowingly contacted Ex-Wife directly or indirectly. Fowers did not need to explicitly direct Brother to communicate his message to Ex-Wife, and the court erred in suggesting as much.

¶14 The State also asserts that Fowers’s statement “You and that f***ing whore have it coming” can be reasonably interpreted as a threat of violence. We agree. In State v. Spainhower, 1999 UT App 280, 988 P.2d 452, this court recognized that the admittedly “vague and indirect” statement, “‘I’m going to get you,’ surely may connote a threat of bodily injury” because “among the many dictionary definitions of the verb ‘get’ are: ‘to bring to retribution, take vengeance on, KILL’ and ‘to strike with force, HIT.’” Id. ¶¶ 6– 7 (cleaned up). Likewise, the words at issue here, though perhaps similarly vague and indirect, could carry either a violent or a nonviolent meaning and must be interpreted by the factfinder in light of “the inferences to be drawn from the context in which the words were spoken.” Id. ¶ 7. And again, at the preliminary hearing stage, a court must “view all evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution and must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the prosecution.” Clark, 2001 UT 9, ¶ 10 (cleaned up). Accordingly, at this stage, the court should have interpreted Fowers’s words to be capable of conveying, in context, a threat of violence.

CONCLUSION

¶15 The protective order’s No Contact Order forbade Fowers from contacting, phoning, mailing, e-mailing, or communicating in any way with Ex-Wife, either directly or indirectly. Its Personal Conduct Order forbade him from threatening violence against Ex-Wife. Plainly there is “reasonably believable evidence—as opposed to speculation—sufficient to” show that Fowers violated one or both of these provisions. State v. Ramirez, 2012 UT 59, ¶ 9, 289 P.3d 444. By not viewing the evidence and the reasonable inferences to be drawn from it in the light most favorable to the State—and instead requiring a statement by Fowers to Brother to direct the comment at issue to Ex-Wife—the district court applied the wrong legal standard and exceeded “whatever limited discretion” it had in the bindover decision. Id. ¶ 7. We therefore reverse and remand this matter to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


[1] See Utah R. Jud. Admin. 14-807 (governing law student practice in the courts of Utah).

[2] Fowers asserts that the State did not preserve “the arguments” it now makes on appeal because the prosecutor “did not raise [them] in a way that gave the district court the opportunity . . . to address [them].” “An issue is preserved by presenting it to the trial court in such a way that the trial court has an opportunity to rule on that issue.” Vierig v. Therriault, 2023 UT App 67, ¶ 43, 532 P.3d 568 (cleaned up); see id. ¶ 44 (“Of note, issues must be preserved, not arguments for or against a particular ruling on an issue raised below. By contrast, new arguments, when brought under a properly preserved issue or theory, do not require an exception to preservation.” (cleaned up)).

Fowers is mistaken when he says that the State did not meet this preservation standard here. At the close of the preliminary hearing, the State referenced “paragraph 1 and 2 of the protective order”; identified those paragraphs as the Personal Conduct Order and No Contact Order respectively; and noted that they prohibited Fowers from “threatening [Ex-Wife] in any way” and from “communicating in any way with [Ex-Wife] either directly or indirectly.” The State then highlighted the evidence that Fowers “called the husband of [Ex-Wife] in the early morning hours when they would presumably be together and made a statement against her to [her] then husband,” which is the same evidence that the State emphasizes here. By presenting evidence and arguing below for bindover based on an alleged violation of both the Personal Conduct Order and the No Contact Order, the State gave the district court an opportunity to rule on the same questions we are now asked to rule on. So regardless of whether those questions are characterized as arguments or issues—and we express no opinion as to the proper characterization here— Fowers’s preservation argument fails.

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State v. Hararah – 2023 UT App 77 – domestic violence prosecution

State v. Hararah – 2023 UT App 77

2023 UT App 77

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee,

v.

HOUSTON RAEFAT HARARAH,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20220276-CA

Filed July 20, 2023

Eighth District Court, Vernal Department

The Honorable Edwin T. Peterson

The Honorable Gregory M. Lamb

No. 201800299

Nicolas C. Wilde and Trevor J. Lee,

Attorneys for Appellant

Tegan M. Troutner and Rachelle Shumway,

Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES RYAN M. HARRIS and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1        Houston Raefat Hararah was charged with assault for throwing a potted plant at his then-girlfriend. He waived his right to a preliminary hearing and proceeded to trial, following which he was convicted. He now contends that he was coerced into waiving his right to a preliminary hearing because the district court[1] stated, at various points in the proceedings, that it would not permit Hararah to accept any plea deal if he chose to have a preliminary hearing. But the record indicates that Hararah rejected the State’s “best offer” and independently decided to waive the preliminary hearing and proceed to trial, so we cannot agree that the court forced his waiver. Hararah also asserts that his defense counsel (Counsel[2]) provided ineffective assistance for not objecting to the court’s allegedly problematic statements, as well as for telling the jury, during opening statements at trial, that they would not hear that Hararah had punched the victim, when the victim went on to testify that he did so. We do not agree that his counsel performed deficiently in either respect, so we affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶2        After police responded to an argument between Hararah and his then-girlfriend, Hararah was charged with assault, with a domestic violence enhancement. The Information alleged that Hararah “threw a potted plant at his girlfriend[,] striking her in the face and causing a cut above her eye.” As a result, the district court issued a no-contact order against Hararah. At a hearing to review the no-contact order, held in July 2020, the following exchange took place between Hararah, the district court, and Counsel:

Counsel:  Judge, do you want to keep [the next hearing] on the 28th? I think that at this point, I’ve discussed a plea with Mr. Hararah and it looks like we’re probably going to be setting it for a preliminary hearing.

District Court:  Well, let’s go ahead and . . . take it on the 28th and see—Mr. Hararah, do you understand if you go to preliminary hearing, you’re going to trial on the original charges? I won’t allow a plea negotiation after that.

Hararah:  Yes, Your Honor.

District Court:  Okay. Well, you think long and hard on that and I’ll talk to you on the 28th. Thank you.

¶3        The minutes for the next hearing, held in August 2020, indicate that “[t]he defendant request[ed] a Preliminary Hearing” and that “the [c]ourt set[] this matter for Preliminary Hearing.”

¶4        In court on the date set for the preliminary hearing, in September 2020, Counsel said, “I’ve had a chance to speak with Mr. Hararah, [and] he’s willing to waive his right to a preliminary hearing and we can set the case for trial—for the next step.” Then the following exchange took place:

District Court:  So you talked to [Counsel] about what a preliminary hearing is[,] right?

Hararah:  Yes.

District Court:  Okay. And you are, in fact, willing to waive your rights to a preliminary hearing and allow the matter to be bound over; is that correct?

Hararah:  Yes.

District Court:  Very good. I will go ahead and allow the waiver[;] I’ll bind the matter over. How long do you think you need to have discussions, [Counsel]?

Counsel:  Your Honor, I think that the best offer has been made and Mr. Hararah  has had a chance to discuss it, and I think we’re just going to need to figure out when we can get it on for a trial as soon as possible in front of a jury.

Later in the hearing, the district court added,

District Court: [W]e will have a trial as soon as possible. And seeing as we did not go to prelim, we could still have discussions regarding, you know, some other outcome to the . . . litigation.

¶5        The case eventually went to trial, and during opening statements, Counsel said to the jury, “You will not hear any testimony about [Hararah] punching [the alleged victim] . . . . [Y]ou’ll hear . . . that the only item that he had to protect himself from [a] taser [the alleged victim held] was the plant that was on the floor. And he picked it up and he threw it so that he could get out . . . .”

¶6        But when the victim testified, she stated that Hararah had hit her through a pillow. She testified that the pair had been drinking and started arguing when “[a] verbal argument turned into a physical [one].” She said, “I had tried knocking over his drink. I knew the conversation wasn’t ending anywhere. He ended up on top of me hitting me.” She described how she tried to leave the room but “was hit in the face” with “a pillow and his fist.” She clarified that “he was punching [her] and hitting [her] through the pillow.”

¶7        Later in the trial and outside the presence of the jury, Counsel objected to “the uncharged misconduct that we’ve now heard about for the first time today, which is this witness . . . now saying that she was punched in the face by Mr. Hararah prior to the throwing of the plant.” Counsel asserted, “That is nowhere in the State’s discovery. It is not in the officer’s report, it isn’t anywhere in the body cam. And so what we are now entertaining is the fact that these jurors can . . . believe that the bruising on her face comes from those punches rather than from the plant.” Counsel explained why this was problematic: “We don’t have the ability to bring in a rebuttal expert to say, ‘Hey, do you think these bruis[es] came from punching or . . . from a plant?’ So, I maintain that [this] is prejudicial.” The trial court responded, “I’ve previously ruled during the course of the trial that I would allow the testimony as long as it was consecutive to the day . . . in question [and] I would allow testimony from . . . the witness about the arguing and the conduct that happened during that date in question.”

¶8        The State went on to call the deputy who had arrested Hararah. On cross-examination, he testified that “[t]he only assault [he] was aware of was the plant being thrown,” and he agreed that if the victim had “mentioned being punched in the face, [he] would have put that in [his] report.” In closing arguments, Counsel portrayed the victim as an unreliable witness based on the inconsistencies between her previous accounts of what happened and her trial testimony.

¶9        Ultimately, the jury found Hararah guilty of domestic violence-related assault. Hararah now appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶10 Hararah presents two issues on appeal. First, he asserts that the district court erred “when it coerced [him] into waiving his right to a preliminary hearing by threatening to not allow him to accept a plea bargain from the State if he exercised his fundamental right to a preliminary hearing.” He argues that this error “violated Article I, Section 13 and Article V, Section 1 of the Utah Constitution; Utah Rules of Criminal Procedure 7(e) and 11(i); and our adversarial system of justice.” Hararah admits that this “issue was not preserved,” but he claims that “either the exceptional circumstances exception or the plain error exception applies here.”

¶11      Second, Hararah asserts that Counsel provided ineffective assistance in two respects: (1) by “fail[ing] to object to the district court coercing [Hararah] into waiving his fundamental right to a preliminary hearing” and (2) by telling the jury “during opening statements that the jury would not hear any testimony about the alleged victim being punched.” “When a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is raised for the first time on appeal, there is no lower court ruling to review and [the appellate court] must decide whether the defendant was deprived of the effective assistance of counsel as a matter of law.” State v. Reid, 2018 UT App 146, ¶ 17, 427 P.3d 1261 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 432 P.3d 1225 (Utah 2018).

ANALYSIS

  1. Preliminary Hearing Waiver

¶12      Hararah argues that the district court “violated [his] rights . . . when it—by threatening to prevent him from accepting a plea deal from the State—forced him to waive his right to a preliminary hearing.” Hararah acknowledges that he did not object or otherwise preserve this argument. He argues that either the plain error exception or the exceptional circumstances exception applies. But Hararah cannot prevail under either theory.

  1. Plain Error

¶13      To show plain error, “a defendant must establish that (i) an error exists; (ii) the error should have been obvious to the trial court; and (iii) the error is harmful, i.e., absent the error, there is a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable outcome for the appellant, or phrased differently, our confidence in the verdict is undermined.” State v. Holgate, 2000 UT 74, ¶ 13, 10 P.3d 346 (cleaned up).

¶14      We first address Hararah’s argument that the district court erred by “coercing” or “forcing” him to waive his right to the preliminary hearing. Hararah takes issue with the district court’s statement made at the July 2020 hearing: “Mr. Hararah, do you understand if you go to preliminary hearing, you’re going to trial on the original charges? I won’t allow a plea negotiation after that.” The advisability of this comment[3] is immaterial here because the record indicates that Hararah chose to waive his right to a preliminary hearing for reasons unrelated to the district court’s statement. In other words, the record is clear that the court did not, in fact, force or coerce Hararah to waive the preliminary hearing because he made an independent choice to waive it.

¶15      At the outset of the September 2020 hearing, Counsel said, “I’ve had a chance to speak with Mr. Hararah, [and] he’s willing to waive his right to a preliminary hearing and we can set the case for trial—for the next step.” Critically, Counsel also said during that hearing that “the best offer has been made and Mr. Hararah has had a chance to discuss it, and I think we’re just going to need to figure out when we can get [the case set] for a trial as soon as possible in front of a jury.”

¶16 We make much of the fact that Hararah waived his preliminary hearing in the same hearing in which he expressed his rejection of the State’s “best” plea offer. This shows that Hararah’s waiver was not based on the possibility of future bargaining or a fear that he would not be able to accept a plea deal if he had a preliminary hearing. Counsel did not indicate that Hararah anticipated any plea bargain better than the one the State had offered—as the plea bargain offered was already the “best offer” possible; instead, Counsel represented that Hararah had considered the offer and had decided to proceed to trial rather than accept the offered bargain. And Counsel did not mention the idea that the preliminary hearing was being waived to keep open the prospect of a future plea deal.

¶17      Hararah fails to provide us with any evidence supporting a belief that his independent desire to proceed to trial—after rejecting the State’s “best offer”—was not what drove his decision to waive his right to a preliminary hearing. If Hararah had represented in any way that he was forgoing the preliminary hearing because he was planning to accept a plea deal or wanted to keep his options open, the case before us would be quite different. But instead, the record demonstrates that Hararah was forgoing the preliminary hearing after having fully considered and rejected the State’s best offer and with the goal of going to trial as soon as possible. Accordingly, Hararah has not shown that any error took place, because there is no indication that the district court’s comment had any effect on Hararah’s actions.

¶18      Similarly, the district court’s post-waiver statement that “seeing as we did not go to prelim, we could still have discussions regarding, you know, some other outcome to the . . . litigation” had no bearing on Hararah’s decision to waive his right to a preliminary hearing. At that point, Hararah had already made his decision to forgo the preliminary hearing, and he had also already rejected the State’s best plea offer.

¶19      Furthermore, even if we assume that the district court’s comments alone—rather than Hararah’s counterfactual claimed reliance on them—constituted error, Hararah has not met his burden on plain error review to show prejudice. The record shows that Hararah would have taken the same course of action whether or not the district court made the comments at issue. The same facts discussed above indicate that even if the statements had never been uttered, Hararah would have been presented with and rejected the State’s “best offer” and would have wanted to move as quickly as possible toward trial, including waiving his preliminary hearing. Accordingly, Hararah’s claim on this point fails.[4]

¶20      Moreover, even if “an error exist[ed]” that “should have been obvious to the [district] court,” Holgate, 2000 UT 74, ¶ 13 (cleaned up), any such error was cured by Hararah’s conviction by a jury, see State v. Aleh, 2015 UT App 195, ¶¶ 13–18, 357 P.3d 12, cert. denied, 366 P.3d 1213 (Utah 2016). In Aleh, a defendant “contend[ed] that the trial court erred in denying his motion to withdraw the waiver of his right to a preliminary hearing.” Id. ¶ 13. This court determined that because the “sole purpose” of a preliminary hearing is “determining whether probable cause exists,” “an error at the preliminary stage is cured if the defendant is later convicted beyond a reasonable doubt.” Id. ¶¶ 14–15 (cleaned up). And “[t]his is so even when the error consists of a complete deprivation of a preliminary hearing.” Id. ¶ 16.[5] “Because conviction beyond a reasonable doubt cures any flaw in a preliminary hearing—including the complete deprivation of a preliminary hearing—it necessarily cures any error the [district] court may have made in accepting a defendant’s waiver of the right to a preliminary hearing.” Id. ¶ 18.[6] “Accordingly, [Hararah’s] conviction of all charges beyond a reasonable doubt cured any possible error attending his waiver of a preliminary hearing.” See id.

¶21      Ultimately, Hararah’s argument of plain error fails.

  1. Exceptional Circumstances Doctrine

¶22      We apply the exceptional circumstances doctrine “to reach an unpreserved issue where a rare procedural anomaly has either prevented an appellant from preserving an issue or excuses a failure to do so.” State v. Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶ 29, 416 P.3d 443 (cleaned up). Hararah argues that “[b]ecause it is procedurally uncommon in Utah to have a district court force a criminal defendant to waive his constitutional right to a preliminary hearing, a rare procedural anomaly occurred.”

¶23      But the claimed procedural anomaly did not actually occur. Hararah’s argument points to the presumed effect of the district court’s statements (namely, “forc[ing]” Hararah “to waive his constitutional right to a preliminary hearing”) rather than the mere occurrence of the statements as the “rare procedural anomaly.” But as we have explained, Hararah was not forced into waiving his right to a preliminary hearing, because he chose to waive that right for reasons independent from the district court’s comments. The absence of an actual “rare procedural anomaly” alone defeats Hararah’s argument as to the applicability of the exceptional circumstances doctrine, but this is not all.

¶24     Even if we assume that the district court’s statements constituted a “rare procedural anomaly,” Hararah would need to show that they “either prevented [him] from preserving an issue or excuse[d] a failure to do so.” See id. Hararah does not attempt to explain what prevented him from objecting to the district court’s statements and thereby preserving the issue. In reality, there was nothing preventing him from doing so. Hararah could have objected when the district court made the first statement at the July 2020 hearing. But this is not a case where a defendant had only one opportunity to object to an alleged error. Hararah could have taken time to review the issue and objected during the August 2020 hearing. Or he could have objected after the district court’s follow-up comment at the September 2020 hearing. Furthermore, before trial, Hararah could have filed a motion to withdraw his waiver. On this record, Hararah had time and multiple opportunities to object or preserve this issue, and he did not do so.

¶25      Moreover, we are not convinced that Hararah’s failure to preserve the issue is excusable. While we recognize the fundamental nature of the preliminary hearing and we protect defendants’ constitutional rights to preliminary hearings, we also recognize that a defendant has the constitutionally guaranteed right to waive the preliminary hearing. See Utah Const. art. I, § 13 (protecting the right to a preliminary hearing “unless the examination be waived by the accused with the consent of the State”); see also, e.g.Hafen v. State, 2011 UT App 85, ¶¶ 3–4, 249 P.3d 1006 (per curiam) (“[The defendant] filed his petition asserting that he was deprived of his preliminary hearing. . . . The petition was inconsistent with and [superseded] by [the defendant’s] waiver. [The defendant] was not deprived of any right to a preliminary hearing.” (cleaned up)). Waiving a preliminary hearing may have negative implications, but this reality does not invalidate a qualifying waiver. See State v. Bragg, 2013 UT App 282, ¶ 40, 317 P.3d 452 (“[The defendant] waived his right to a preliminary hearing, [forgoing] one opportunity to explore the exact nature of the charges against him and resolve any confusion about what those charges entailed.”). While Hararah may, in retrospect, have benefitted from taking the opportunity to develop the victim’s testimony at the preliminary hearing, this does not invalidate his waiver. And his regrets do not excuse his failure to preserve this issue. Therefore, the exceptional circumstances doctrine does not apply.

  1. Ineffective Assistance

¶26 Hararah also asserts that Counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to object to the district court’s comments discussed above and by informing the jury in opening statements that it would not hear that Hararah had punched the victim.

¶27      “To prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, [a defendant] must demonstrate that (1) [the defendant’s] counsel’s performance was deficient in that it fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and (2) the deficient performance prejudiced the defense.” State v. Streeper, 2022 UT App 147, ¶ 34, 523 P.3d 710 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023); see also Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). The first prong of this test “requires showing that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the ‘counsel’ guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. “[T]he defendant must show that counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.” Id. at 688.

¶28      The second prong “requires showing that counsel’s errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable.” Id. at 687. “When a defendant challenges a conviction, the question is whether there is a reasonable probability that, absent the errors, the factfinder would have had a reasonable doubt respecting guilt.” Id. at 695. “Because failure to establish either prong of the test is fatal to an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, we are free to address [a defendant’s] claims under either prong.” Honie v. State, 2014 UT 19, ¶ 31, 342 P.3d 182.

¶29      We can easily dismiss Hararah’s first assertion of ineffective assistance. As discussed above, Hararah did not provide any evidence that he intended to accept a plea deal and that he based his waiver of the right to a preliminary hearing on such a plan.[7] Counsel was aware of Hararah’s feelings toward the choice between pleading or going to trial and stated repeatedly that Hararah was not interested in pleading guilty or accepting a plea bargain. Accordingly, Hararah has not persuaded us that any comments from the district court related to plea negotiations would have affected his plans at all, so Counsel acted reasonably in choosing not to object to such comments. In other words, the district court’s comments bore no impact on Hararah’s actions, so there was no tactical reason for Counsel to act as Hararah retroactively desires. “In evaluating trial counsel’s performance, we give trial counsel wide latitude in making tactical decisions and will not question such decisions unless there is no reasonable basis supporting them.” State v. Liti, 2015 UT App 186, ¶ 18, 355 P.3d 1078 (cleaned up). Here Counsel acted in line with Hararah’s clear desire to proceed toward trial.

¶30      Additionally, for the same reasons described above, we are convinced that Hararah was not prejudiced by this alleged deficiency in performance. Hararah asserts that “[t]here is a reasonable likelihood that if [he] had been allowed to exercise his right to a preliminary hearing,” his case would have ended differently. But Hararah was able to exercise his right to a preliminary hearing. We have already explained why the district court’s alleged carrot—permitting Hararah the possibility of accepting a plea deal—was no carrot at all based on his express refusal of the State’s “best offer” and his desire to proceed to trial. Hararah’s claim might have some foundation if he had proceeded with a preliminary hearing and the court had, in fact, restricted his ability to negotiate a plea deal or even if he had accepted a plea bargain after waiving the preliminary hearing. But given that he clearly and consistently conveyed his desire to go to trial, that he was offered the “best” plea deal and refused it, and that his conviction by a jury at trial was in no way influenced by the district court’s earlier comments on waiving the preliminary hearing, we are not persuaded that the outcome would have been any different if Counsel had objected. See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 695. Therefore, Hararah cannot show ineffective assistance on this point.

¶31      Hararah’s second allegation of ineffective assistance is also unavailing. Hararah asserts that Counsel performed deficiently by saying in opening statements that the jury would “not hear any testimony about [Hararah] punching [the alleged victim],” when the victim went on to testify that Hararah had, in fact, hit her through a pillow. Hararah argues that Counsel should not have made such a promise without first “lock[ing] in” the victim’s testimony during a preliminary hearing. But, as discussed above, Hararah waived the preliminary hearing of his own free will. And it is clear that neither side was aware the victim would testify that Hararah hit her, because the deputy testified that he did not know of any assault other than Hararah throwing the plant. Accordingly, we do not fault Counsel for making a statement in line with all the known facts, and we conclude that Counsel’s actions are not nearly “so serious that counsel was not functioning as the ‘counsel’ guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment.” Id. at 687.

¶32      Furthermore, Hararah was not prejudiced by this allegedly deficient performance. Counsel was able to paint the victim as an unreliable witness based on the inconsistencies between her previous accounts of what happened and her trial testimony. And Counsel elicited testimony from the State’s own witness that there were no allegations of punching prior to trial. Accordingly, Hararah was in a strong position to counter the State’s case, and the jury still found him guilty of assault. From this, we see no support for “a reasonable probability that, absent the errors, the factfinder would have had a reasonable doubt respecting guilt.” Id. at 695.

CONCLUSION

¶33       Hararah’s claim that the district court coerced him into waiving his preliminary hearing is not supported by the record, so the exceptional circumstances doctrine does not apply and the court also did not plainly err. Additionally, Hararah’s assertion of ineffective assistance of counsel fails. Therefore, we affirm Hararah’s conviction.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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2023 UT App 65 – State v. Meyer – Parent Charged With Child Abuse

2023 UT App 65 – State v. Meyer

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH,
Appellee,

v.

ELIZABETH LYDIA MEYER,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210718-CA

Filed June 15, 2023

First District Court, Brigham City Department

The Honorable Spencer Walsh

No. 181100556

Wendy M. Brown, Debra M. Nelson, and Benjamin Miller, Attorneys for Appellant

Blair T. Wardle, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which
JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and RYAN D. TENNEY concurred.

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1        Elizabeth Lydia Meyer’s[1] ex-husband (Father) discovered bruising on their daughter (Child) after picking her up from Meyer’s home. The State charged Meyer with child abuse and, at a bench trial, used a process-of-elimination approach to argue that Meyer was the only possible cause of the bruising. The district court convicted Meyer, and she now appeals. Meyer asserts that the court erred in admitting the preliminary hearing testimony of her now-husband. We agree that this action was erroneous and prejudiced Meyer, so we vacate her conviction.

BACKGROUND

¶2          One Wednesday in July 2018, Father picked up Child, then two years old, from Meyer’s home for a regular midweek visit. Meyer and Father had been through a “fairly contentious” divorce, and their relationship was sometimes “volatile,” so Father had made it a habit to record via cellphone his pickups of Child. His video recording from this day shows marks on the upper portions of both of Child’s arms. But Father did not notice the marks until later, when he was at a restaurant with Child. Father exchanged texts with Meyer about the marks:

Father: I noticed that [Child] has what looks like bruises on her arm. Is she okay?

Meyer: Yes, she’s fine.

Father: How did she get those marks?

Meyer: How do children get the majority of their bruises? What direction are you trying to go with this?

Father: I’m just concerned because the bruising pattern is not consistent with normal childhood injuries.

Meyer: Since when did you become an expert in that matter? I understand that you want to pretend to care about my daughter, but I do not wish to have you go on a third witch hunt and falsely accuse someone like you already have done twice, even though we both know you’re dying to. You do not make any of her medical appointments. And the last I knew you have not completed any courses in the direction. So please leave your harassing comments to yourself.

¶3          After dinner, Father drove to the police station and asked for an officer to examine Child’s arms. An officer (Officer) and a caseworker (Caseworker) from the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) met with Father and photographed Child’s arms approximately two hours after Father had picked up Child.

¶4          Officer and Caseworker then visited Meyer’s home. Outside, they met Michael Glenn, Meyer’s then-boyfriend whom she married before the case went to trial. Glenn was initially “defiant” and did not want them to enter the house, but when they showed him photos of Child’s bruises, he was concerned and let them in.

¶5          Officer and Caseworker entered the house and spoke with Meyer, who was very upset. Officer asked Meyer what could have caused bruising on Child’s arms, and Meyer gave multiple possible explanations, including Child falling out of the car when she arrived home from daycare, Child playing with hair ties that were like rubber bands (which she snapped on her arms), or Child playing roughly with her older brother and sometimes getting rug burns from the roughhousing. Caseworker asked Meyer how she had picked Child up when Child fell out of the car after returning from daycare, and Meyer responded along the lines that she picked Child up like any mother would and cleaned her face. Meyer also reported that she had caused a mark on Child’s upper arm when Child ran into the street and Meyer pulled her back. Caseworker showed Meyer photos of Child’s bruises, and Meyer was very surprised, saying, “They were not like that.”

¶6          Glenn gave Officer contact information for Child’s daycare provider (Daycare Provider). When Officer spoke to Daycare Provider on the phone, she confirmed that Child had been in her care that day. Daycare Provider also confirmed that she had asked Meyer about a mark on Child’s arm when Meyer picked Child up that day and that Meyer told her she had grabbed Child to prevent her from running into the street.

¶7          The next day, Father took Child for a physical exam, which was completed by a forensic nurse examiner (Nurse). In her report, Nurse identified “[p]ositive physical findings of injury to bilateral upper arms and left forearm” and described the upper arm injuries as “circumferential and linear with equal spacing between” them and stated that the bruises were “highly indicative for a squeezing mechanism and physical abuse.” Child was not returned to Meyer’s care.

¶8          The case was transferred to a detective (Detective), who called Meyer two days after the alleged incident and recorded the phone call. During the call, Meyer implied that Father was the source of Child’s bruises because, according to her, Child had no bruises until she was in Father’s care and Meyer believed that “[h]e [was] trying to get [her] daughter away from [her].” Meyer was very upset during the call and indicated that she had been previously accused of child abuse, presumably by Father. Meyer also stated that she did not see any bruises or marks on Child— other than the mark from the incident she reported of grabbing Child to stop her from running into the road—before giving Child to Father. But she explained that Child would sometimes scratch herself, leaving marks, and hit and bite things. Meyer also spoke about Glenn’s whereabouts on the day of the incident, indicating that Glenn was asleep when Child came home and remained asleep until after Father had picked Child up.

¶9          Detective wrote in his police report that Child’s older brother, then four years old, “was asked where his sister got the marks on her arm and he said that it was from someone who had power and squeezed hard.” Detective spoke to Daycare Provider, though he did not inspect her home; perform a background check on her; or speak with the parents of other children she babysat or with the three children she had living with her, who were ages fourteen, ten, and eight and may have had access to Child. Detective later testified that he didn’t really consider Daycare Provider a suspect after speaking with her. He also ruled out Glenn as a suspect based on Meyer’s statement that Glenn had been asleep between the time Child came home from daycare and the time Father picked up Child. However, in his report he wrote that he told Meyer he didn’t think the incident causing the bruising had happened on that day. But at trial he testified that, based on his investigation, the timeline he established was that there were no visible bruises—other than the one caused by Meyer stopping Child from running into the street—until the time between Meyer picking Child up from daycare and Father picking her up from Meyer within the next forty-five minutes.

¶10 In August 2018, another officer (Sergeant) interviewed Meyer in person at Detective’s request. Meyer’s statements were consistent with those she had made previously. Specifically, Meyer again stated that Glenn was asleep when Child returned from daycare and did not wake up until after Child left with Father.

¶11        In December 2018, the State charged Meyer with one count of child abuse, a class A misdemeanor.

¶12        The district court held a preliminary hearing in May 2019. Among other witnesses, the State subpoenaed Glenn to testify at the hearing. When he was called to testify, he was hostile, and the court threatened to hold him in contempt and take him into custody. But Glenn ultimately did testify. While he first declared that it was “100 percent incorrect” that he told Officer and Caseworker that the marks had not been on Child in the morning, after reviewing Officer’s bodycam footage, he admitted that he did say that. He also testified that after waking up that morning, he went straight to the car and didn’t notice any marks on Child’s arms, but he said he was busy “concentrating on driving and getting to and from.” He described how he went with Meyer to drop Child off at daycare in the morning. He testified that he was asleep when Meyer brought Child home. And he declared that he did not cause Child’s bruising.

¶13 Sometime after the preliminary hearing, Meyer married Glenn, and Meyer’s defense counsel (Defense Counsel) informed the State via email that Glenn intended to invoke his spousal privilege related to testifying at trial. The State told Defense Counsel that Glenn was “still required to show up to court to produce evidence that he [was], in fact, married . . . and take the stand to actually invoke the privilege.” The prosecutor insisted, “This is important because then he will become an unavailable witness. As an unavailable witness, I will then be able to play his preliminary hearing audio in lieu of his testimony.” Defense Counsel indicated that she “had anticipated that [the State] would be able to get Glenn’s preliminary hearing testimony in at trial.”

¶14        When Defense Counsel later informed the State that Glenn would be on bed rest following surgery on the date of trial (which had been continued multiple times), they discussed the possibilities of Glenn testifying via video during trial or of filing stipulated facts related to his testimony. But Glenn filed a motion to quash the subpoena against him. The State then sent Defense Counsel a transcript and redacted audio file of Glenn’s preliminary hearing testimony that it intended to have admitted at trial, and Defense Counsel responded, “I would absolutely object to both the transcript and the audio coming in at trial. . . . Glenn’s testimony is hearsay[,] and to introduce it would also be a violation of my client’s confrontation rights.” Defense Counsel explained, “The Utah Supreme Court has ruled that because there is a different motive for examining witnesses at a preliminary hearing than that at a trial, said testimony is inadmissible.”

¶15        The State then filed a motion to admit Glenn’s preliminary hearing testimony. After receiving briefing and hearing oral argument, the court found that Glenn’s testimony fell under the exception to hearsay in rule 804(b)(1) of the Utah Rules of Evidence for former testimony of an unavailable witness. The court acknowledged caselaw indicating that defendants are restricted in developing testimony at preliminary hearings, see State v. Goins, 2017 UT 61, ¶¶ 32–33, 423 P.3d 1236, but it distinguished that caselaw from the facts of this case and admitted the testimony.

¶16 The court held a bench trial in May 2021. In its opening statement, the State indicated that “through the process of elimination,” it would “show beyond a reasonable doubt that it was . . . Meyer who committed child abuse.”

¶17 In addition to Glenn’s testimony, Daycare Provider testified at trial that Child had been in her care from roughly 9:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. that day. She stated that she did not see any marks or injuries on Child when Child was dropped off and she never saw marks like those photographed, but she did notice a different mark on Child’s arm later in the day, and this was the mark she asked Meyer about. She also testified that on the day of the bruising, she did not take Child to the park, she did not know of any equipment Child could have accessed that would have caused the injuries, Child did not get injured playing with toys, Child did not receive any injuries while in her care, and Child did not cry or appear to be in pain while in her care. She admitted, though, that she was aware that Child had been “kicked out of her previous day care . . . for playing too rough” and that Child “play[ed] really rough with toys and hit[] dolls a lot.”

¶18        Nurse testified that after examining Child, she “speculated . . . that because of the spacing, and the shape, and the location of the injuries, the colors that [she] saw, they were most definitely bruises,” the spacing of which “could fit a hand.” She said, “I’m not telling you it’s fitting a hand because—you know, I can’t say it was a hand unless I watched it happen, but I can tell you that those are bruises that are in a linear form that you don’t just get from falling down.” She further testified that based on the location, direction, and shape of the bruising, she did not believe that the incidents Meyer had described as possible accidental sources of injury had caused Child’s bruises. She also testified that the marks were “fresher bruises” that, based on coloration, could have been caused within hours of when Officer and Caseworker photographed Child’s injuries. But she acknowledged that “there’s no scientific way to date a bruise” and said that while it was “likely that it occurred” that day, “literally there is no way to determine when it happened.”

¶19 The State played a clip from the recorded interview between Meyer and Sergeant, in which Meyer stated that Child had a temper tantrum after arriving home from daycare and that Child tried to get out of being held and Meyer needed to grab her arm from the side.

¶20        In its closing argument, the State asked, “[W]ho caused the abuse?” and answered that “this is where we get into the process of elimination.” The State then explained its theory that the evidence proved that no one else could have caused the bruising, including Glenn, who “slept through the whole thing.”

¶21 The court ultimately found Meyer “guilty of a lesser-included offense of [c]lass B misdemeanor, child abuse, for having inflicted this injury on [Child] in a reckless manner.” The court provided its rationale, explaining in part that it “found highly credible the testimony” of Nurse that the “bruising was consistent with the types of bruising she has seen in her child abuse conferences and trainings.” The court ruled out Glenn as a potential source of the injuries by saying, “You know, . . . Glenn is asleep by the time [Child] gets home and doesn’t really interact at all. And then we know for a fact that the injuries took place . . . definitively prior to when [Father] arrive[d] based off of the video.” The court concluded, “And so there’s just no doubt in the [c]ourt’s mind that Mom, you lost your cool, you crossed a line, you squeezed your daughter’s arms, and it left that injury. It couldn’t have been anyone else.” The court sentenced Meyer to 180 days of jail but suspended 179 days. It also ordered a fine and probation.

¶22        Meyer subsequently filed a motion for a new trial through Defense Counsel. Defense Counsel then withdrew from representing Meyer. Meyer appeared pro se and asked the court to appoint counsel, but the State objected, and the court decided that Meyer did not qualify for appointed counsel based on her income. The court ultimately denied Meyer’s motion for a new trial. Meyer now appeals.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶23        Meyer argues on appeal that Glenn’s “preliminary hearing testimony should not have been admitted at trial” under an exception to the bar on hearsay.2 “When reviewing rulings on hearsay, [appellate courts] review legal questions regarding admissibility for correctness, questions of fact for clear error, and the final ruling on admissibility for abuse of discretion.” State v. Leech, 2020 UT App 116, ¶ 31, 473 P.3d 218 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 481 P.3d 1039 (Utah 2021). But even “if we determine that the hearsay testimony should not have been admitted, we will reverse only if a reasonable likelihood exists that absent the error,

  1. Meyer also argues that the district court “committed plain error by failing to obtain a valid waiver of counsel before having [Meyer] represent herself on her motion for a new trial.” Because we rule in her favor on the first issue, we need not address this argument.

the result would have been more favorable to the defendant.” Id. (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

  1. Similar Motive and Opportunity

¶24 Meyer argues that the district court erred in admitting Glenn’s preliminary hearing testimony. She asserts that Glenn’s testimony fails to qualify for the rule 804 exception to the evidentiary bar on hearsay. This exception applies when “the declarant is unavailable” and the declarant’s testimony was “given . . . at a trial, hearing, or lawful deposition” and is now “offered against a party who had . . . an opportunity and similar motive to develop it by direct, cross-, or redirect examination.” Utah R. Evid. 804(b)(1). Meyer argues that caselaw on this point “compels the conclusion that the admission of Glenn’s preliminary hearing testimony was erroneous” because that caselaw indicates that the motive to develop an adverse witness’s testimony at a preliminary hearing differs from the motive to do so at trial.

¶25        In State v. Goins, 2017 UT 61, 423 P.3d 1236, our supreme court discussed the effect of the 1994 amendment to Article I, Section 12 of the Utah Constitution, which limited “the function of preliminary examination to determining whether probable cause exists,” id. ¶ 31 (cleaned up) (discussing Utah Const. art. I, § 12). The court stated that, “by and large,” this provision “places most credibility determinations outside the reach of a magistrate at a preliminary hearing.” Id. ¶ 33. Therefore, “[o]ur constitution specifically limits the purpose of preliminary hearings in a manner that can undercut defense counsel’s opportunity to cross-examine witnesses at a preliminary hearing and thereby modify the interest counsel has in developing testimony on cross-examination.” Id. ¶ 41. But the court “eschewed a blanket rule” of inadmissibility for preliminary hearing testimony because it could “envision scenarios where, for whatever reason, defense counsel possesses the same motive and is provided the same opportunity to cross-examine as she would have at trial.” Id. ¶¶ 36–37. However, the court indicated that “such cases might prove rare.” Id. ¶ 36.

¶26 The Goins court then analyzed the motive for cross-examining a witness at the preliminary hearing by considering the facts of the case, which included the defendant allegedly brandishing a knife and accusing the later-unavailable witness of stealing his phone, after which the witness fled and the defendant assaulted the witness’s acquaintance. Id. ¶¶ 3–6. The court held that it was “apparent on the record . . . that [the defendant’s] counsel did not possess the same motive to develop testimony at the preliminary hearing that she would have had at trial” because the witness’s “testimony referenced concerns with [the defendant] and a prior incident between” the pair, so the defendant’s “counsel had a motive to develop this testimony and question [the witness’s] credibility” at trial “that went beyond a preliminary hearing’s constitutionally limited purpose.” Id. ¶ 46.

¶27 Subsequent cases have reached similar conclusions. In State v. Ellis, 2018 UT 2, 417 P.3d 86, a defendant faced a charge of aggravated robbery for allegedly robbing a cupcake shop at gunpoint, id. ¶¶ 1, 4. The store clerk testified at trial as to the events within the store, id. ¶ 19, but another witness—a witness who saw the perpetrator leave the scene, run across the road, and get into a car whose license plate she then reported—was not able to be in court on the day of the trial, id. ¶¶ 7–8, 16. The court admitted her preliminary hearing testimony, id. ¶ 19, but our supreme court held that this was improper, id. ¶ 40. It stated that in Goins, it had “conditioned the admissibility of preliminary hearing testimony on a showing that defense counsel really did possess the same motive and was permitted a full opportunity for cross-examination at the preliminary hearing.” Id. ¶ 39 (cleaned up). And it said that “Goins foreclose[d] the admissibility of the . . . preliminary hearing testimony” because, “as in Goins, . . . [the court had] no basis to conclude that [the defendant’s] counsel’s preliminary hearing motive to cross-examine was similar to what would have existed at trial.” Id. ¶ 40 (cleaned up).

¶28        Similarly, in State v. Leech, 2020 UT App 116, 473 P.3d 218, cert. denied, 481 P.3d 1039 (Utah 2021), this court applied the holding of Goins where a defendant faced charges related to the alleged kidnapping of two men and murder of one of them, id. ¶¶ 22–24. The court considered the admissibility of preliminary hearing testimony from a man who helped tie up the victims, drove the group to the murder site, supplied the gun, and observed the murder. Id. We noted that “whether the defense had a similar motive to develop prior testimony for purposes of rule 804(b)(1) will often turn on the nature of a witness and her testimony.” Id. ¶ 40 (cleaned up). Where the witness in question “was not only a critical eyewitness, but also an accomplice to each of the crimes,” we determined that “[t]he opportunity to cross-examine this type of witness at a preliminary hearing will likely be a poor substitute for confronting the witness at trial, where the jury can observe [the witness’s] demeanor and assess . . . credibility firsthand.” Id. Accordingly, we held that “the State did not demonstrate that [the defendant] had an adequate opportunity and similar motive to cross-examine [the witness] at the preliminary hearing as he would have had at trial.” Id. ¶ 41.

¶29 The district court believed that the present case was distinguishable from Goins because that case involved an “incident that could have caused motive for [the witness] to fabricate or fashion . . . testimony in such a way that would be damaging to [the defendant].” See Goins, 2017 UT 61, ¶ 46. On the other hand, the court stated, “in the case before the [c]ourt, there’s nothing that has been pointed to specifically that would indicate that there is a similar motive for . . . Glenn to have fabricated any of his testimony.” But the court’s analysis on this point was inadequate, as a witness’s motive for fabrication is not the only circumstance that might impact a defendant’s motive for questioning a witness at a preliminary hearing. This is obvious from Ellis, where the witness had no motive to fabricate testimony and our supreme court still held that it had “no basis to conclude that [the defendant’s] counsel’s preliminary hearing motive to cross-examine was similar to what would have existed at trial.” 2018 UT 2, ¶ 40 (cleaned up).

¶30 The district court erred in concluding that the motives at the preliminary hearing and at trial were the same. The court stated that during the preliminary hearing “there was an opportunity to cross-examine [Glenn] as to whether he was the source of . . . the injuries, whether he abused [Child].” “In fact,” it pointed out, “the State specifically questioned him on that.” It continued, “[The preliminary hearing judge] would have never shut that down and said, ‘No, even though the State had questioned specifically, did you cause the injuries, [d]efense you’re prohibited from going after him to follow up on that question.’ Certainly that would have been permitted by . . . the [j]udge.” But this analysis does not align with our supreme court’s in Goins. The Goins court specifically addressed the reality that a per se rule of admissibility for preliminary hearing testimony of unavailable witnesses “places magistrates in the uncomfortable position of choosing between conducting preliminary hearings in fidelity with article I, section 12 and permitting the type of examinations” that were standard before the constitutional amendment limited the scope of preliminary hearings. 2017 UT 61, ¶ 34. The district court fails to accept that, as the supreme court suggests, Defense Counsel could have reasonably expected the court to limit questioning to that which was necessary for probable cause and prepared to cross-examine Glenn accordingly. See id. We reasoned similarly in Leech, where the defendant’s “counsel admitted that he did not pose a question during his cross-examination of [the witness] that was objected to and sustained, but he maintained that he did not have the same opportunity and motive to cross-examine [the witness] as he would have had at trial because he understood the limited scope of the hearing.” 2020 UT App 116, ¶ 28 (cleaned up). Accordingly, the district court erred in determining that Meyer had the same motive and opportunity to question Glenn in the preliminary hearing as she did at trial because the judge would— presumably—not have prevented follow-up questions to those that were asked.

¶31        Instead, the court should have recognized that the motives changed with respect to questioning witnesses at the preliminary hearing versus at trial. The State was clear that its case was based on a process of elimination. This point is hardly significant at a preliminary hearing, which seeks to determine if there was probable cause—a low standard—for a jury to conclude Meyer caused the bruising. See id. ¶ 20 (reciting the magistrate’s explanation at the defendant’s preliminary hearing that “different standards of proof apply at a probable cause hearing than apply at trial” and that “probable cause means enough evidence that the court is convinced that a reasonable jury could find, not that they necessarily would, but that they could find the offenses charged were committed and that [the defendants] were the individuals who committed them” (cleaned up)). Moreover, at a preliminary hearing, the facts are construed in the light most favorable to the State’s case. See id. (indicating that the magistrate informed the defendant that “one of the most important [differences] is that any doubts or questions about evidence at a preliminary hearing get resolved in favor of the State and against the defendants” and explained that “the benefit of the doubt goes to the State in a preliminary hearing” (cleaned up)). On the other hand, at trial the State must prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, see, e.g.id. ¶ 64, and here the State needed to eliminate all other possible suspects beyond a reasonable doubt during trial. So the motive in questioning each witness at the preliminary hearing was to show lack of probable cause that Meyer was the source of Child’s bruises, while the motive at trial was to introduce reasonable doubt as to Meyer causing the bruises by convincing the court that someone else may have done so. In other words, with respect to Glenn, the motive shifted from showing that Glenn was the more likely source of the bruising to showing that Glenn could have caused the bruising such that there was reasonable doubt that Meyer caused it. Therefore, we hold, as did the Goins court, that it was “apparent on the record . . . that [Meyer] did not possess the same motive to develop testimony at the preliminary hearing that she would have had at trial” because at trial Meyer “had a motive to . . . question [Glenn’s] credibility that went beyond a preliminary hearing’s constitutionally limited purpose.” See 2017 UT 61, ¶ 46.

  1. Prejudice

¶32 “A determination of error in admitting [Glenn’s] preliminary hearing testimony is not alone enough to sustain a reversal. We must also find that error prejudicial. Prejudice in this setting requires a showing of a reasonable likelihood that the decision to admit [Glenn’s] preliminary hearing testimony altered the . . . verdict.” See State v. Ellis, 2018 UT 2, ¶ 41, 417 P.3d 86 (cleaned up).

¶33 The relevant caselaw indicates that errors in admitting preliminary hearing testimony are sometimes harmless. In Goins, the court held that the error was prejudicial as to one charge but harmless as to another because on the first charge, the “testimony was the primary evidence admitted in support of” that charge but on the second charge, the testimony did not address the major underlying facts and the guilty verdict was supported by other witness testimony and corroborating photographs. State v. Goins, 2017 UT 61, ¶¶ 50–51, 423 P.3d 1236.

¶34        Similarly, in Leech, this court identified prejudice with respect to one count but not as to three others. State v. Leech, 2020 UT App 116, ¶ 48, 473 P.3d 218, cert. denied, 481 P.3d 1039 (Utah 2021). For the first, we determined that the “charge could not be proven without crediting” the testimony of the kidnapping victim who wasn’t killed and “there [was] a reasonable likelihood that the jury would not have believed” this person “without the corroboration [the unavailable witness’s] testimony provided.” Id. ¶ 63. But we held that two of the convictions were independently supported by three other witnesses. Id. ¶ 52. And for the final charge, one of its elements “was not disputed at trial” and the other two elements “did not depend on the veracity of the [unavailable witness’s] account of the murder itself.” Id. ¶ 62.

¶35        In Ellis, the court found prejudice where “the preliminary hearing testimony in this case was central to the prosecution’s case on this charge.” 2018 UT 2, ¶ 2. The court so concluded because the witness “provided key pieces of evidence that the jury likely credited,” including her being “the only witness who could testify that the robber fled in a car”—making her “the crucial link for what occurred after [the clerk] lost sight of the robber.” Id. ¶¶ 43, 45.

¶36 Here, the court’s error in admitting Glenn’s testimony prejudiced Meyer because there is a “reasonable likelihood that the decision to admit [Glenn’s] preliminary hearing testimony altered the . . . verdict.” See id. ¶ 41 (cleaned up). The State’s presentation of the case against Meyer as a “process of elimination” impacts the fact-finder’s weighing of the evidence such that, for Glenn’s testimony to have been prejudicial, Meyer need show only that without the testimony, the court would have had a reasonable doubt that she was the source of the injuries. Meyer points us to this helpful insight offered by the Supreme Court of Illinois: “[I]f [the prosecution] intend[s] to obtain a conviction by the process of elimination by showing that no one else but [the] defendant could have been guilty, the burden [is] upon it to show that there was no one else in the other room.” People v. Boyd, 161 N.E.2d 311, 315 (Ill. 1959).

¶37        We agree with Meyer that removing Glenn’s erroneously admitted testimony makes a finding of reasonable doubt as to Meyer’s guilt much more likely. While Meyer’s own testimony corroborated Glenn’s account from the preliminary hearing that he was sleeping during the time Child was home from daycare until Father picked her up, that is not the only information Glenn provided. Glenn also testified that he did not cause the bruising. And he testified that, on the morning in question, he woke up and went directly to the car to drive Child to daycare, giving him no opportunity to interact with Child such that he could have caused her bruising that day.

¶38        The court, in providing the rationale for its conviction of Meyer, explained that it “found highly credible the testimony of” Nurse that the “bruising was consistent with the types of bruising she has seen in her child abuse conferences and trainings.” And it said, “You know, . . . Glenn is asleep by the time [Child] gets home and doesn’t really interact at all. And then we know for a fact that the injuries took place . . . definitively prior to when [Father] arrive[d] based off of the video.” The court clearly found that the bruises were caused before Father arrived, but it did not make a specific finding that the bruises could not have been caused earlier in the day. And Nurse, whose testimony the court found “highly credible,” testified multiple times that she could not provide a timeline for the cause of the bruising. When asked if it was “possible to at least rule out certain time frames,” Nurse responded, “What we were trained was that a fresher bruise is red or purple. . . . Red or purple means that this happened probably fairly close to the time that I saw her because of the darkness of the color, but . . . there’s no scientific way to date a bruise.” Nurse agreed that the bruises could have been caused “within hours.” But when Defense Counsel pressed, asking, “You testified a minute ago that you—it’s your opinion that with bruising, from what you observed, it’s more likely that it occurred like four hours before?” Nurse answered, “That day.” Defense Counsel stated, “That day. Two hours before, five hours before.” Nurse responded, “Purple-red is the colors you see first with bruising and there is—literally there is no way to determine when it happened.”

¶39 Given that removing Glenn’s testimony would have heightened the possibility that Glenn caused the injuries at some time outside the window between Child’s return from daycare and Father’s arrival, we conclude that Meyer was prejudiced. The State’s process-of-elimination approach makes Glenn’s preliminary hearing statements that he did not cause the bruising and did not have the opportunity to cause the bruising before Child went to daycare all the more significant. The State admitted as much when it argued for the admission of Glenn’s testimony, saying that “his testimony [was] necessary to the State to prove the case at trial.” We are hard-pressed to conclude that the testimony’s faulty admission was harmless when the State was so adamant that the testimony was essential in the first place. And the State fails to argue that Meyer was not prejudiced by the faulty admission or to point us to other evidence corroborating these key points of Glenn’s testimony. So without the preliminary hearing testimony, Glenn was not excluded—or at least not as easily excluded as he would have otherwise been. The State’s theory required it to eliminate all other possible suspects; without Glenn’s preliminary hearing testimony, it did not do so, and it is likely that the court would have concluded as much. In this respect, Glenn’s testimony is like that at issue in Ellis, because it was “central to the prosecution’s case” and “provided key pieces of evidence” under the State’s process-of-elimination approach. See 2018 UT 2, ¶¶ 2, 43. And this testimony is unlike that deemed nonprejudicial in Goins and Leech because Meyer’s conviction did “depend on the veracity of [Glenn’s] account.” See Leech, 2020 UT App 116, ¶ 62. Accordingly, the court’s error in admitting Glenn’s preliminary hearing testimony prejudiced Meyer.

CONCLUSION

¶40 The district court erred in admitting Glenn’s preliminary hearing testimony, and Meyer was prejudiced by that error. We therefore vacate Meyer’s conviction and remand this matter for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

 

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

 

[1] Since the time of her charges, the defendant has remarried. She uses a different last name but still accepts the use of “Meyer.” We continue to use “Meyer” for simplicity and for consistency with the case name.

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